PROVIDENCE — How heavy will the millstone be?
That’s the question Attorney General Peter F. Neronha kept in mind as he pushed for a new law that would reclassify personal-use possession of 10 grams or less of certain drugs — such as cocaine, heroin, and fentanyl — as misdemeanors rather than felonies.
“The real impact is on the millstone: How heavy is the millstone going to be when you are on the other side of the criminal justice process?” Neronha said. “Are you wearing a felony around your neck, or is it going to be a misdemeanor?”
Having a lighter millstone, he said, will help those convicted of having drugs for personal use to find employment, seek treatment, secure housing, and avoid committing other crimes.
On Tuesday morning, Governor Daniel J. McKee held a bill signing ceremony along with the sponsors of the legislation, Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey, a Warwick Democrat, and Representative Scott A. Slater, a Providence Democrat.
“As governor, I understand the importance of public safety, but I also know this an issue of public health,” McKee said at the signing at the Project Weber/RENEW drop-in center on Broad Street. “When people get treatment rather than prison time, they have an opportunity to turn their lives around.”
In an interview, Neronha emphasized that the new law does not lower the penalties for those convicted of dealing drugs or possessing drugs with intent to sell them.
“If you are a drug dealer, this bill does nothing for you,” he told the Globe. “We are as committed as we have ever been to going after drug dealers.”
But Neronha said a review of past cases revealed that the vast majority involving simple possession of drugs such as cocaine and heroin did not result in jail sentences. “Only a handful went to jail and only for short periods,” he said. “Felonies ought to be reserved for people for whom jail time is on the table.”
So Neronha urged legislators to make simple possession a misdemeanor punishable by up to two years in jail rather than a felony punishable by up to three years behind bars.
“In my view, possession of small amounts for personal use is less a criminal justice issue and more of a public health issue,” he said.
And making the crime a two-year misdemeanor, as opposed to a one-year misdemeanor, extends the period of court supervision to monitor whether people receive treatment and avoid returning to drug use, he said.
Rhode Island joins 20 other states in reclassifying these types of drug possession charges as misdemeanors, Neronha said. That group includes “blue states” such as Massachusetts and Connecticut but also “red states” such as Utah and Oklahoma, he said.
Neronha said he wants state prosecutors to focus on more serious offenses — “drug dealers or the people shooting each other in Providence.”
“One thing I learned as US Attorney is you can’t treat all your ‘threats’ the same,” he said. “You have to prioritize.”
The new law does not apply to marijuana. Marijuana possession of similar amounts is a civil violation, and the General Assembly has been considering legislation that would legalize recreational use for adults in Rhode Island.
“People suffering from addiction need treatment, not prison,” McCaffrey said. “As we better understand addiction and rehabilitation, we must modernize draconian sentencing laws to more effectively address substance use disorders.”
Slater said, “This bill will help those with personal drug problems get the treatment they need in order to overcome their addictions and once again become productive members of society.”